Hall and Hischier helper
Given the drop in offensive ability from New Jersey’s top line to the rest of the forward ranks, securing the third spot alongside Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier would represent a major boon to any winger’s value. Jesper Bratt and Kyle Palmieri were the two most commonly deployed options in that role last year, and they remain the top two contenders after New Jersey’s quiet offseason. Palmieri’s power-play prowess gives him decent value regardless of where he ends up at even strength, so winning this battle is much more pivotal for Bratt.
McDavid’s right-hand man
Edmonton doesn’t have the wing depth to use Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as centers on three different lines, so one of Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins will almost certainly join McDavid on the top grouping. Since Draisaitl performed well as a second-line center while Nugent-Hopkins played his best hockey as the first-line left wing last season, you can expect that alignment to open the upcoming campaign. That still leaves an extremely valuable right wing spot up for grabs. Milan Lucic could be used there as an on-ice bodyguard a la Dave Semenko with Wayne Gretzky, but there are fewer opposing enforcers roaming the ice these days and McDavid’s no damsel in distress at 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds. The other two options are Ty Rattie and Jesse Puljujarvi — both unproven players who spent some time alongside McDavid in 2017-18. Rattie occupied the top line at the end of last season, making him the favorite to earn the first crack there.
Sewing up San Jose’s second line
The Sharks have one of the league’s best top-six forward groups. Skating with two of Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl should set up any of San Jose’s less-skilled players for success. Hertl, Couture and Mikkel Boedker made up San Jose’s most commonly used configuration last season, but Boedker now plies his trade in Ottawa. While Kevin Labanc, Joonas Donskoi and Timo Meier are all about equally qualified to fill the final spot in the top six, only one of them will actually do so while everyone’s healthy.
Hayes vs. the youngsters
If the rebuild on Broadway turns out to be more of a re-tool, there’s going to be some nice Fantasy value among New York’s top six forwards beyond the top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Kevin Hayes will be competing with a pair of 2017 first-rounders in Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil for the second-line center role, with each candidate bringing a different skill set to the position. The fifth-year man out of Boston College has the highest floor of the group — Hayes won’t slip lower than the third line after topping 40 points in three of four NHL campaigns and potting a career-high 25 goals last season. Chytil has a higher ceiling than Andersson despite being taken 14 picks later, but last year’s seventh overall selection has a developed two-way game that should help ease any potential growing pains.
Ducks first-unit point man
It’s possible for Cam Fowler and Brandon Montour to coexist on Anaheim’s top power-play unit, but last season’s alignments suggest only one of them will get to join the fearsome foursome of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Adam Henrique and Rickard Rakell. While Fowler was usually the man to round out that group when healthy, Montour chipped in more points with the extra man despite playing in just his first full NHL campaign. Fowler’s an established power-play contributor with four seasons of 15-plus points there, but a Ducks power play that dropped from a league-best 23.1 percent three years ago to ninth-worst in the league at 17.8 last year could benefit from some fresh blood.
Hoping for Hedman
For the second year in a row, there are questions about who will share the ice with Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay. Jake Dotchin, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman all spent significant time alongside the Norris Trophy winner last season. The Swedish star’s plus-32 rating was good for sixth in the league, so the lift in that category alone substantially improved the Fantasy outlook of Hedman’s partners. Dotchin will be hard-pressed just to make the top-six defense group with Ryan McDonagh in the fold, and coach Jon Cooper liked using Stralman with McDonagh after acquiring the former Rangers captain at last season’s trade deadline, leaving Girardi as the favorite to benefit from the Hedman boost. The 34-year-old Girardi wasn’t fleet of foot to begin with and has gotten slower with age, so don’t count out Dotchin usurping his spot as the season moves along.
Minnesota’s odd man out
The Wild have three capable power-play point men, but only two can skate on the top unit. Ryan Suter led the team with 23 power-play points a season ago and is a left-handed shot, so his job on the No. 1 unit is safe unless Minnesota opts to use a forward in that spot, which is unlikely. The other point spot with the big guns is a toss-up between a pair of right-handed shots in Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon, who had 12 and 13 points with the extra man, respectively, last season. Dumba has the slight edge here just because he’s four years younger at age 24 and thus has more room for growth offensively.
Darling vs. Mrazek
This is probably the most unpredictable goalie situation in the NHL because each of these guys has found himself among both the league’s best goaltenders at times in the past three seasons and among its worst at other points over that span. Darling has the incumbency advantage — if you can call posting a 3.18 GAA and .888 save percentage in your first year with the team an advantage. Carolina’s a talented, young team on the cusp of taking the next step and ending a league-high, nine-year playoff drought, so whichever of these goalies steps up as the starter in the post-Cam Ward era is in a better Fantasy spot than you’d think.
Confusion in Colorado’s crease
Varlamov should be the Day 1 starter, so this isn’t a straight tossup. That being said, Colorado has the most Fantasy-relevant goaltending situation with a high degree of uncertainty and Grubauer could easily steal the top job from the injury-prone Russian after outplaying Braden Holtby in Washington last regular season. Both will be owned to start the year in many formats, though a hot start from either could turn this into more of a traditional starter-backup situation rather than a platoon that limits both their upside.
Who the devil is starting in Jersey?
Cory Schneider was once a mainstay in Fantasy lineups, but he’s lost his way over the past two seasons. In fact, things got so bad last year that he failed to notch a regular-season win after Dec. 27 while New Jersey rode career-backup Keith Kinkaid to the postseason. Kinkaid was overmatched by the Lightning in the playoffs, however, and Schneider was called upon to start that five-game series’ final three games, winning one. Schneider’s still on the books for four more years at $6 million per season, so he’ll likely earn first crack at the starting gig with the Devils reluctant to waste that money on a backup. He’s still recovering from offseason hip surgery and will be on a short leash given Kinkaid’s performance last season, though. New Jersey’s expected to contend for a playoff spot once again, so whoever sees the majority of the action in the crease should provide solid Fantasy value.